Worldbuilding: Research, Common Sense, and Imagination

Worldbuilding. This is popular topic that I’ve been asked to write about, but to be honest, I’ve been wary of doing so. You see, I create whole worlds for fantasy stories or science fiction stories. I easily create entire means of transportation, technology, civilizations, and cultures, but I do not sit down and say, “Okay, so, if this planet is that far from the sun, the temperature of that planet will be this many degrees, and its days and nights will be this long while its seasons are that long.” Nor do I map out every single detail of everything in this new world. I’ve observed many such discussions in writing groups, and I’m always overwhelmed by all the detail (I totally applaud those of you who can go to such great depths of your story because I would get lost, but each person is different). There are a lot of great sites and blog posts that go more that direction. Here are a few examples:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

Building Fantasy Worlds

Storywonk: Worldbuilding

Again, there are many more posts and sites dedicated to this subject. You’ll simply have to look them up.

Now, my own approach worldbuilding a little more simple. However, allow me to explain a few things. First of all, scientists in this world don’t know everything. Yes, they know a lot (more than me!), but they don’t know everything. There are minerals out there we’ve never encountered, occurrences on other planets or even moons we can’t explain. Yes, we do our best to apply what knowledge we have and make logical explanations, and this is good, but we will never really know unless samples are brought back to us for further studying or we go there to study. We don’t know what other worlds (even outside our solar system) are really like. We can do calculations, make careful observations, and explain things in a logical way, but we won’t know for certain if we’re absolutely right until we go there (I’m not really talking about Mars or the moon really but rather someplace further).

Now, having said all this, when creating worlds, I don’t stick to merely what I know. Yes, there are essential elements every planet should have like gravity, but I’m not going to go and determine just how big the planet it, how close it is to the sun in order to determine what the gravity is like on that planet. Why? Because it’s not important. Not to my stories at least. If my characters are traveling from planet to planet, they have a task to do and something to accomplish, and it’s not studying a new planet (unless that is their job). If gravity is important to the storyline (since it could have an affect on fight scenes or such if necessary), then yes, I’d do some brief calculations, bounce some ideas off more scientific-minded individuals, and figure out what I need to know about the planet’s gravity hold. However, if the character is going to that planet to meet with someone, get information, and then get off, there is no need to spend all that time developing a world where your character will only be for at least a day or so.

Basically, if it’s not important to the story, I won’t worry about it. I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing every detail of the planet. My characters are moving from point A to point B, and what they see along the way is what you get to see too. If a character happens to tell a story about the planet’s past, then the reader gets to hear that too. Otherwise, I keep moving.

What about civilizations and cultures? Well, what do you want your character to encounter? You can look around at the different civilizations of the day (both modern, extinct, and mythical) and come up with something unique. This would shape their buildings, social habits, and even politics. Let’s say you want your characters to run into some Viking-like society, so do some research to understand their habits. However, because these aren’t the Vikings, you have the liberty to use your imagination, get creative, and make up stuff. Mix and match cultures to come up with a wild blend of your own.

It all boils down to a single point: what do you want your character to encounter and how is it different from everything else in all other books out there?

Now, it may sound like I’m completely dismissing thorough research in worldbuilding, but I’m not. You can’t just slap together some details and hope your readers understand the world you’ve created. No, if you want to create a strong image for them, a world they will remember, you need to take a moment and imagine what the world looks like—imagine it clearly, so you can explain it clearly.

For instance, I have this one country in a world that has unusual meteorologic occurrences. It is a desert climate, but during the day there is a thick cloud cover of angry clouds. It always looks like it is going to rain and be a terrible storm. However, as the sun is setting, the clouds begin to pull back, and there is a break in the clouds where the sun can shine upon the land briefly before it sets. And then at night the skies are clear—the stars are bright. However, the next morning, the clouds are back. It is the only place in that world that this occurs. I cannot explain it scientifically, but this is what the story wants, and I do not argue with the story. If I do that, it will fight back by giving me Writer’s Block. I can see it clearly in my mind, and I write it.

One thing I’d recommend everyone to do a bit more research in is the structure of the government (any government in any age). See how the lower class is treated by the middle class and higher class. Observe who creates the laws, who enforces the laws and how, and who might be the exceptions to the law. Note punishments and how justice is served. Look at the educational system—see how the children are raised to think or not think. I say you should study these because these are fundamentals in how a culture is run. You may study multiple cultures and take a little here and something else from over there and create your own system, and that is fine. However, it is important to have a good handle on these elements because your characters will likely run into people involved in these branches (they may get in trouble with the law of that world), and instead of freaking out and then spending hours on Google before you finally toss the question to your writers group of how things should proceed, you will already know and can move on.

Use common sense (for instance, what goes up must come down—if you’re someplace with gravity), but also use your imagination. Don’t worry about all the logistics and if the critics or experts will say, “That’s not even possible!” Because you know what? They may be right. It might not be possible, but your story is fictional, and you can make it however you want it. Go ahead and create mushroom trees and purple skies, but remember, you don’t want to bog your readers down with description after description. It’s best to show the world as your character is passing through it. You can find all my different posts on description here: Cinemagraphic Writing: Description

Now, the only exception to this entire idea is if you have a character who is a scientist—someone who can scientifically explain just about anything. If you have her in your crew, you will probably want to know as much as you can about anything because she will talk, and you want her to sound intelligent and accurate.

If you’re the kind of writer who must have ever detail of the atmosphere of your world figured out, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. I highly admire your determination to get all the facts absolutely right. However, if you’re the kind of writer who is overwhelmed by having to know ALL these facts, and you’re about to panic, take a deep breath. I’m giving you permission right now to not worry about all those details. Right now, focus on the immediate environment your characters are in (is it desert or mountain? Medieval or futuristic?), do your best to describe that, and move on with the story. Focus on the story. You can always go back and add more detail during the revision process.

Writing a Strong Antagonist

The antagonist, the villain, the bad guy of your story is the main person standing the way of your protagonist reaching his goal. Of course, your story may have the main conflict be the environment, natural disaster, or within the protagonist’s mind. However, if the chief conflict in your story is a person, it’s important to remember that that character is just like every other character. He has his ambitions, goals, dreams, fears, regrets, secrets, and beliefs, but most importantly, he thinks what he is doing is right—for himself, for his friends, for his family, for those around him. He views himself simply as the misunderstood hero of a story but won’t complain or voice his opposition. He does what he needs to do, and no one will stop him. He may take advantage of his reputation to do what he deems is right even if no one else sees it.

At least, that’s how antagonists should be considered. Too often they’re cast as a cardboard villain. The only reason for their existence is to hinder the hero from reaching his goal. Usually their motives are revenge or world domination.

This is shallow.

It usually happens this way because the writer is so focused on finding out everything there is to know of the hero that they never even think about learning all they can of the villain. However, each character should be created equal, and the author should set aside time to ask the antagonist, “Why are you doing this?” If you ask this of your villain, be completely non-judgmental, openminded, and sincere. Yes, you know they’re going to be wrong, but you need understand that they don’t think they are. They may surprise you.

Now, some writers won’t ask their villain this question because they don’t really want to know the answer. Why? Because they’re afraid the real motive behind all this might change the face of the story as they know it. They really want the hero to be the good guy, but what if the villain isn’t absolutely wrong? What if he has some really good points although his solution may be wrong? What if he makes the hero look weak, shallow, and selfish? Writers may shy away from this because they don’t want to accept the possibility their protagonist isn’t perfect, but what makes the hero a stronger character is a stronger and more concrete villain.

Now though, for a fun exercise that could confuse your villain and maybe even add immediate depth to him, don’t have your hero shout at the antagonist, “You’re wrong! You’re evil!” But rather, have your protagonist pause and look at the villain from another point of view and then say, “You know what? You are actually really intelligent. I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I agree with you, but I can respect where you’re coming from.” This would totally throw your villain for a loop because they may be trying so very hard to show everyone their mean self, and when that suddenly doesn’t work, they falter and stumble a bit. They’re caught off guard. It’s easy for them to live up to the expectations of being cruel or such. If someone says, “You’re so mean!” The villain will merely laugh, “Bwhahahaha! You think this is mean? I will show you MEAN!” and goes to an extreme. However, if the comment is, “You’re quite intelligent,” the villain will automatically want to say, “I will show you INTELLIGENT….” but then pause and realize that makes absolutely no sense. Or even, “I realize it now. You’re doing what you think is right. You’re just misunderstood,” and the villain, “I’ll show you MISUNDERSTOOD!!” As you can see, it simply doesn’t have the some effect, but it is fun to do. Never know what would come out of it.

Now though, it is true that in real life some really bad people do horrible things for absolutely no reason whatsoever. They may be mentally mad or something. You want your story to be real, and that is real, so why not write a villain who just simply doesn’t care? This is entirely up to you and whatever you deem best for your story. However, don’t use this as an excuse not to explore all angles of your antagonist because you may never know what you will discover when you start looking there.

If your antagonist has some really good points, it forces you to develop your protagonist’s view to counter him. So, when you take the time to develop the villain of your story, you are actually investing in your protagonist, and you learn much of both of them! This is better for your story.

A Unique Kind of Character Interview

Character interviews and character questionnaires—the point of these is for the author of the character to get to know him by asking him rounds of questions. If it’s a questionnaire, it will look something like this:

Name:

Age:

Height:

Hair color:

Eye color:

Parents:

Siblings:

Favorite food:

Favorite color:

And so forth. This is a way to find out a lot about your character…but most likely stuff you may never, ever use because it’s not important to the story. I’m not saying questionnaires are wrong and useless—quite the contrary. They can be very helpful and useful to some writers, but other writers may find them overwhelming.

Now though, there is such a thing as ‘character interviews’. In these, the author asks the character a question, and the character shows his or her personality through the answers. These work exceptionally well in order to get to know your character for yourself, but there’s only one problem. You interview your own character, and the character is in your head, and your own thoughts could influence the character’s response. This isn’t bad because this is just a fact of writing, but what if there’s a better way to interview characters? This is something I’ve explored with multiple authors.

This new format is very similar to the new kind of author interview I introduced a few weeks ago. A fictional scene is set, two of us meet, we write in third person, questions are asked, questions are answered, and you see the character in action rather than merely hearing their responses. For the Character Interviews, I allowed the authors to choose the setting—something from their story world—so their character would feel comfortable on their own turf.

I then came in, and I am not a character—this was difficult for both author and character to comprehend, and they kept trying to tie me to their reality, but I had to stay outside their reality because it allowed me to ask questions that would probably get another character of the story killed. How exactly did I remain outside their reality? I set one rule: no touching. Even if a character did try to touch me, he would pass through me as through I were a ghost. This was incredibly helpful when I came face-to-face to some savage, bloodthirsty villains because I was able to ask them pointed questions they hated to hear, and if they lashed out at me, they couldn’t harm me. This accomplished two things: 1) took control away from the villains, and they loathe that, so it shows a different shade of them, and 2) allowed me to stay focused on the interview and questions rather than getting caught up in an actual story scene. The point of these interviews is to ask questions—not become part of a story. That is why I set that rule in place.

Not all characters I interviewed were antagonists. Sometimes I interviewed the protagonist, and depending on the character’s personality, it was either a witty and charming interview or it was a cautious, carefully probing questioning. Some characters were forthright and confident, but others were withdrawn, distrusting, and insecure. To each of these, I had to adapt my approach to ask them questions.

What does this kind of character interview accomplish? In this type of interview, there is the element of the unknown. Neither you nor your character know what I will ask next. You are confident that you know your characters very well, and instead of trying to trip them up yourself with difficult questions, you’re completely backing up your character. Both your character and you are absolutely engaged in answering the question—rather than you trying to come up with questions which your character may or may not answer. Having someone from the outside come in and interview the character in a story form really gives the author and the readers a chance to learn who that character is. Being able to use body language allows for the character to show his true colors without having to say anything. I once interviewed a villain who I enraged so much that he had to go and get a drink, but he was still furious and squeezed the glass until it burst in his hand…and then he answered my question. If we were just showing the question and answer, we wouldn’t have been able to show his full rage.

Since an outside person is asking the question, this allows the author to learn so much about their character because they are forced to dig deep and find answers to questions they may never have thought of to ask. Sometimes the author realizes their character is completely cliché and shallow. In these cases, I’d pause the interview and inform the author of my observations. If they wanted to know how to make a stronger character, I’d make recommendations, and then we’d redo the interview after they’ve had a chance to recreate the character. It is amazing to observe the difference between the two interviews once the author has really delved deep into his character and forced him to take shape rather than letting him be ambiguous. But most characters I’ve interviewed have been well-developed. It’s just a matter of probing deep and uncovering the truth behind their motives and the depth of their beliefs.

Here’s what a few of the authors, whose characters I interviewed, said about the experience:

Nan Sampson Bach

This was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had! I knew my villain had a short temper, even though he prides himself on being so controlled. Kelly managed to enrage him so much he completely lost it. It was hilarious! The questions really made me think too (seriously, it was getting hard to tell who was doing the thinking, me or him), about his motivations, his underlying belief systems and a host of other things. I thought I had a handle on it, but this interview brought up some good stuff I can play with. So not only a FAB time, but useful for me the author and hence for my readers too! Thank you, Kelly!

Matthew Dale

So I have to be honest, this interview was a mulligan. The first time Kelly interviewed this character, he did not perform well. I don’t have a lot of experience writing villains and it showed. That being said, this interview was a huge learning experience! Kelly was awesome. She was patient and encouraging, but was very direct about what could be improved. That directness was tempered with kindness and an attitude of wanting to see a fellow writer improve their craft, which cushioned her critique. The “redo” interview was much better, and I really felt like I got to know my own character. She really made me dig into his motivations, and she didn’t hold back in asking him tough questions. It’s helpful to sit down and actually role play a character, which is something I hadn’t really done prior to this interview. This was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had as a writer. I would encourage other writers who want to do this interview to be willing to listen to the opinion of others, and at least be willing to consider that opinion. You may learn something new about your character you never considered before.

Kristen Moger

I found Kelly Blanchard’s character interviews a fascinating journey into my own character. It is an interesting experience to take a character out of my own head and make them come alive for another person. As a writer, it is a challenge I loved as it brought me a greater awareness as to my character’s motivation and potential. Thanks, Kelly, for the opportunity.

Clint Brill

Kelly approached me to do a character interview and, for some strange reason, I agreed. I’d never done a character interview before so I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I was worried about it and considered making an excuse to get out of it. Even at zero hour, as I was typing up the intro to get the interview started, part of me was still trying to think of how to get out of it. I couldn’t think of anything and I’m glad I didn’t. The interview was a lot of fun, and I was sad when our time was up. Kelly has a way of putting interviewees at ease and make the interview fun. Janus, the character I used for the interview, is very reticent when it comes to talking about himself, but Kelly got him to open up and reveal more than he has in any of the stories he’s appeared in. She even got him to reveal his plans for the future. Those plans were a surprise to me because I didn’t know anything about them. Because Kelly was able to make the interview fun and interesting, I enjoyed the process and learned something about my character that I didn’t know before. Kelly is a skilled and delightful interviewer. She can interview me or my characters any time she wants.

Lia Rees

In my second interview with Kelly, I was able to explore the personality of a supporting character who previously hadn’t seemed real to me. The style of interview was vital to this exploration. Kelly entered the world of my character, Myriam, with curiosity and openness. She easily grasped the unusual setting, psychological climate and areas of conflict. She asked probing questions, gently suggested potential pathways, and showed a general spirit of empathy. Immersing myself fully in my character’s reality, I was able to draw from intuitive methods as well as intellectual ones to understand her better than I had before.

Virginia Carraway Stark

This is what it is like:

You open those doors in your mind that release your characters to be free in their world. When you go to those familiar places, you notice something different…A new door where there was no door before.

That is what it is like to be interviewed as your character like my character, Sasha Wheaton, was interviewed last week by Kelly Blanchard. It’s the same as writing in many ways but with the added dimension of penetrating, rational thought being added to the process. By adding this we don’t just stay in our character’s comfort zone but penetrate deep into their hearts and minds. You’ll find more there than when you first opened that door. A vital tool for all writers seeking to hone their craft, and if you’re a writer, you always are a seeker.

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These are just a few examples of what people have experienced with this form of character interviews. I am currently still in the process of finishing all 25 interviews, and that won’t wrap up until next week. I will begin posting the interviews regularly once I’m finished, and you can find the interviews on my other blog: Meeting With The Muse

Writers have discovered this to be a fun and unique way to get exposure for their work as well as introduce their characters, story, and writing style to readers, and I intend to continue offering this service to writers. If you are interested, you may join my group on Facebook: Author Kelly Blanchard, and watch for the announcement when I open the invitation for more people to be interviewed.

You never know what you’ll learn in these interviews, and this is a very unique way to introduce you and your work to potential readers.